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Henrico, other school districts respond to law ending mask mandates

Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 5:24 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2022 at 6:56 PM EST
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - School systems across Virginia now have until March 1 to get rid of their mask mandates. Some are doing so immediately, while others are utilizing the grace period.

On Wednesday afternoon, within hours of Gov. Glenn Youngkin signing the law, Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) announced it would drop the mask mandate. In a division-wide email sent to families, school leaders said effective Thursday, Feb. 17, families had the choice of student mask use in schools.

Since the pandemic, Henrico Schools has stood firm with universal masking in schools. While it still strongly encourages it, the quick turnaround in policy has left some parents upset.

“I definitely know that masks won’t be on forever, but I just wish we could have waited longer to make sure numbers continued to drop and then stayed low,” one parent said. “If I felt like decisions were being made based on science, then I might be more comfortable, but it all seems like this is being driven by divisive politics, ridiculous lawsuits, and hyperbole on the part of those slightly inconvenienced by the situation.”

“I don’t understand why they didn’t provide a transition period; I know a lot of people had a lot of anxiety about today,” said parent April Sullivan.

The move by Henrico Schools came as a surprise to Sullivan.

An HCPS spokeswoman said while they understood parents’ concerns about the timing, they knew some families would choose to send students to school without masks immediately, despite the March 1 deadline.

This puts our school-based administrators and staff – who are already working so hard - in a very challenging situation,” added HCPS spokeswoman Eileen Cox. “It also has the potential to create a situation where both masked and unmasked students would be in the same class without any advance notice to parents.”

“My response to hearing that would be that once again, they are bowing down to the loudest minority,” Sullivan said.

According to Henrico Schools, masking is only one part of its mitigation efforts.

“We practice physical distancing to the greatest extent possible, use high-quality air filtration systems, maintain daily cleaning practices, continue to support vaccination clinics, and provide at-home, rapid test kits to families and staff,” Cox said.

However, Sullivan’s daughter said social distancing was difficult.

“In the hallways was particularly difficult because you’re so squished up against everyone else,” she said. “In the classes, she was pretty much able to stay away from anyone without a mask.”

“I wish more kids had masks on, but at least the teachers didn’t need to spend their whole day having to correct kids who wouldn’t wear them right,” one student said.

Many families had discussions with their kids Wednesday night about what to expect on Thursday.

County Supervisors and School Board members stated their children went to school wearing masks.

“I’ve asked my kids what they think about masks; they certainly don’t like them, but they have worn them pretty much without complaint because they knew it was how they got back to being in-person in school,” said parent David Kazzie. “I don’t want them to go back to virtual, and I know they don’t want to go back to virtual.”

Meanwhile, HCPS said it would have counselors available for students who experience anxiety about the change or have any questions.

Several parents also commented on social media, saying they were happy about the quick move by Henrico Schools. Some say it’s time to move forward from the status quo.

As for school systems that already had optional masking in place, the school day didn’t look any different.

Colonial Heights joined Henrico on Thursday, officially dropping its mandate, following Monday’s vote by the school board.

“Students are encouraged to respect the choice of others to wear or not wear a mask,” a press release said. “Masking will become optional for employees and visitors in school buildings starting February 28, 2022.”

Hopewell Schools announced it will end its requirement by March 1, but it plans to use that time to update guidelines for the district. Until then, masks are required. If a student shows up without one, they will be given a mask, according to a spokesperson.

Petersburg City Schools will keep its mandate until the school board reviews a draft of the proposed implementation on Feb. 25. A spokesperson there said they expect to have the measure in place before March 1.

“My kids are vaccinated; they’ve been in good health,” Kazzie said. “I don’t feel the risk to them is terribly high individually, but we have to think about everybody; there are kids with health conditions, there are teachers.”

Richmond Public Schools announced a similar approach. Beginning March 1, parents will choose if they want their child to wear a mask in school.

“All adults – staff, partners, and visitors – must still abide by our mask mandate,” RPS said. “A parent/caregiver must formally request that their student not wear a mask. To do so, they will need to email us at COVIDrps@rvaschools.net and indicate the student’s name and school. They do not need to provide a reason.”

Superintendent Jason Kamras added no students would be separated if their parent/caregiver chooses to have them not wear a mask.

“Absent a parent/caregiver request submitted to the email address above, students must continue to wear a mask while at school,” RPS said.

Keep in mind even if masks are optional in the classroom, your child will still need one on the bus. The federal requirement for masks on public transportation is still in place.

Copyright 2022 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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